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A Day With John Clark

John Clark is a British sculptor and painter with a talent for striking representations of the human figure, a critical view of the intersection of brand and style, and a love for corny crime shows. Read on to learn about his creative 9-5.

Hi, John! What’s the first thing you do when you get up in the morning?

For better or worse, most mornings, I get up to the thought: “What have I done? or “Why did I do that?”

I will have done something – a painting or drawing, perhaps a sculpture, and the passage of time, however short, will often have rendered them strange to me. So as I shower and brush my teeth, I will wonder what I was doing and why. I’ll gradually close the gap that has opened between me and my work. It’s a sort of daily internal audit I suppose, carried out against a background of news and conversation, while the table is laid, breakfast eaten, the table cleared and people ready themselves for work. 

John Clark

By the time I set off to the studio, those earlier questions will have given way to the more urgent: “What will I do today?” This will occupy me for the 30 minutes or so that it takes to walk to the studio, and I often think it is the most important part of my day. There is something about walking that stimulates thought. Maybe it’s simply the rhythm or perhaps the incidental sights along the way, but it is almost always during this time that things clarify and I achieve some resolution for the day ahead. 

That may be to simply continue with whatever I was doing yesterday, but it is equally likely that, as I amble along, something unexpected will occur to me: an image or thought might suggest itself, some news might shock, or an incident on the street might release a train of buried associations that spark opportunities for new threads of work. Even if existing commitments preclude the possibility of acting on these moments immediately, their occurrence will remind me that there is much to do so I’d better not slouch! I often reach the studio at a canter.

Then something strange happens. Not mystical but strange, because when I begin work, all the thinking stops. Or at least all the anxiety that the thinking provokes stops. Perhaps that’s why I do it? I can’t think of a better reason.

What inspires you to create everyday?

Like most people, my thoughts extend to the next distraction, the next news story, the next funny video or inspirational aperçu from a feed. It is an emotional, psychological landscape that is full of inspiration while simultaneously removing the space within which it may grow into something more than the first glimmering response. The material flows in and the inspiration with it. But how to grip it? What to do with it? There’s just so much. 

Inspiration is easy to come by, substance much less so, but even as I write this, I’m aware that the very idea of substance, or doing something substantial, seems like an anachronism.

I think what inspires me to work is precisely this cacophony:

The act of making, making almost anything, stops the noise and confers gravity to thoughts that might otherwise be lost in the maelstrom. The challenge is not so much to make sense of it all but to slow down the spin.

The Brothers (2018) by John Clark – Folded Paper, Resin, Pigment, Wax

What does your workspace look like?

I have a studio. It’s a good space, big but not huge. It’s not a hangar but neither is it a cupboard. Light industrial is the term that is used for this sort of unit, I think. Stud walls, corrugated roof, skylight, mezzanine, sink, and a separate office. All are as poorly maintained as you would expect of a low-cost light industrial unit: the roof leaks, the sink blocks, the taps drip. The office is cosy, but the lights don’t work and since no one has the courage to attempt to untangle the random accumulation of wiring that has evolved over many decades of tinkering by different lease holders, they are never likely to work again. The plug sockets do work though, and there are plenty of those.

In the summer it is sweltering and in the winter freezing; in zoological terms it is cold-blooded. But it has big walls, decent light, plenty of storage and is a place I can make a mess. I’m lucky to have it, especially since I live and work in Cambridge. Cambridge for all its other attractions, cannot count plentiful workshop space amongst them. So, to have a workshop at all, however dilapidated, is something of a miracle, and, in the light of a booming local economy that turns even the worst ruin into a home for the aspirational worker, can even feel like a victory at times.

The studio itself is situated in a yard that has, over many years, provided units for an assortment of independent traders and makers. It’s a motley community of antique dealers, tailors, furniture makers, clairvoyants, carpenters, picture restorers and writers. There have also occasionally been other artists too, although a combination of Cambridge rents and the precarity of an artist’s life have meant that no others remain (and I’m gripping on with my fingertips.)

John Clark’s studio in Cambridge.

It is set at the top of a metal staircase, above a Dutch bike workshop and next door to a framer. The back windows overlook a courtyard that is bursting with a dizzying array of pots and plants of all varieties. There are peppers and tomatoes and aubergines. I have seen lettuce too alongside nameless but pretty flowers and young trees that are incubated in small pots before release into the wild. All are lovingly tended by three-fingered Pete, an energetic young carpenter with a corner unit at the back of the courtyard. At its centre is an apple tree that produces delicious apples every couple of years.

As a young artist, I would have felt deep suspicion about such a studio and all that it suggests. Perilously close to an ivory tower. And as a one-time lecturer in art school I would have counselled students to strain every sinew not to become mired in something as perilous as a studio, especially one as remote from other artists as this. I would have warned of the dangers of slipping into isolation and from there into irrelevance or worse, self-indulgence. I think I still believe it. It is therefore a little confusing to find myself here and to be broadly happy about it.

What are your top three studio essentials?

Number 1. A radio, number 2. A radio, and number 3. Spotify. I like hearing people talk. I don’t have to be listening to what they’re saying but I find the sound of voices in conversation calming. As a result, I have the radio on more or less constantly. Radio 4 mostly, or Radio 5. Not podcasts or audiobooks as they require some concentration. I just need a babble of words that I can dip in and out of.

This has been true for as long as I can remember and probably has a lot to do with an early life in a busy house full of people in whose company I would sit and draw. I wouldn’t have to join in the conversations; it was enough that they were going on. 

Recently, however, I have found myself listening to music. This is entirely due to the news overload that accompanied Brexit. Such were the passions it provoked in me that I often found myself fulminating futilely in response to some item or other. It got in the way of work. So, to save myself the heartache and restore some sensible internal equilibrium that would let me work, I subscribed to Spotify. 

What a boon and a blessing that has been! I will tend to binge on some musician or playlist, listening to it until I can barely hear it. Although even then it has an effect, creating a bed of sound that I suspect contributes materially to what I do and how I do it. Which is to say the diet of music has changed the way I work,  how I think about the work and maybe even the sort of work I want to make. This will come as no surprise to the many artists who have been inspired by music, but it does come as a bit of a shock to me who has for so long been wedded to the spoken word.

In terms of what I listen to: a lot of Latino stuff, plenty of acoustic ballads and a medley of tunes from my youth- notably UB40, Squeeze, Talking Heads, and Bob Marley to name a few. I’m currently listening to a playlist of Nordic Noir theme tunes whose moodiness I love.

Clark’s distinctive human figures.

Describe your core style or technique.

I don’t think I have one, but I would love it if I did. I always think it would make things easier. Instead, I submit to the logic of the various strands of work that I do. So, for example, the sculptures involve a good bit of design and planning on the computer followed by a lengthy low-tech process of construction from the plans. I’ve written in more detail about the sculptures here.

The paintings proceed differently. The process is more volatile. They might just as easily involve some traditional observational painting as they could a more freeform exploration of images from my imagination or material experiments. The best I can say is that all the strands of work are bound to an interest in the figure, ways of capturing it and the stories it can tell.

Speaking more generally, I find the whole notion of style fascinating. In my head, it occupies a fraught space that it shares with the words like Brand, Voice and Identity. It’s fraught because they are often used interchangeably despite pulling in different directions. 

Style is the lightest and airiest of the lot. It suggests an overlay, something you choose, like clothing, that hides a thing to better reveal its spirit. Brand, on the other hand, is much more restrictive. It is a choice too, but it imposes stricter rules and while it also seeks to distil the important characteristics of a thing, the rules might end up changing the thing it is seeking to represent. It requires discipline and rigor and once established, the rules must be obeyed for fear of losing clarity. Branding has overtaken considerations of style in the art world. Or perhaps it would be better to say that style has mutated into brand. 

Voice is softer and richer than Style and more trustworthy than Brand. It suggests something natural and authentic. It’s definitely not an overlay, or rule set. Voice is a medium that interacts with a thing, adding flavor. 

And then there’s identity, the thing which all others attend to in their different ways. It is the thing without which there is nothing to overlay with style, nothing to distil into a brand, and nothing to flavor. Except identity is famously fugitive and slippery, it tends to morph overtime and may in fact be an illusion if the psychologists and sociologists are to be believed. What a pickle!

I’m not at all sure where that leaves us, except to say that we live in an age where brand reigns supreme. Those of us from a pre-branded age, myself included, worry about this. 

The Brothers 2 (2017) by John Clark – Oil on Canvas

How do you know or decide when an artwork is finished?

It depends very much on what sort of artwork we’re talking about. I divide work into two broad categories: 1. Exploratory: Work that asks what happens if…? and 2. Directed: Work that has a pre-defined goal.

The sculptures sit in the second category. They are like jigsaws and are finished when all the pieces have been bought together and cleaned up. They are not the sort of work that involves much imaginative interaction during their construction, just care and patience. They don’t accommodate accidents. They are designed and then built.  

Some of the paintings are also designed and then made, but more often than not they are more open-ended, and for those it is much more difficult to say when they are finished. As a rule of thumb, I’d say that the work is finished when any further work would either ruin them or make no difference.

Of course, that is only one part of the story and there is a very strong argument that no work is complete until it is shown. Other people’s responses provide a dimension that the maker cannot provide or predict, and even a piece with which the artist is very familiar can change in the face of an audience.

Time also influences my attitude to the completeness of a piece of work. How common it is to trip over an abandoned piece which the passage of time and a change in circumstance has transformed from finished to unfinished. These moments render all decisions made at the time of its making ridiculous. So, I take it as read that all decisions regarding finish are provisional.

What do you like to do to unwind?

During the week, my evenings are ideally spent in front of some crime drama. I have a special weakness for them and have a very low bar when it comes to their quality. Some corruption, a murder, an investigation with a twist, all mixed with some jeopardy is enough for me. If it can be wrapped up in a couple of hours, has a good backing track and has snow in it, then all the better. So, while higher quality is better (Endeavour is brilliant, Line of Duty fantastic, The Killing a classic), I can often be found happily watching the softer end of the genre: Miss Marple, Midsomer Murders, Poirot, etc.

I ask little of these programs. So little that I can feel guilty about it. I don’t mind that they lack ambition. In fact, I often mind if they show too much of it. And I feel bad for the writers and actors with more ambition who are trying to shake things up but whose programs I don’t watch. The guilt comes because I suspect that the audience for art is much the same: undemanding and casual. 

It reminds me that most of the stuff that I worry about is completely irrelevant to an audience for whom art is a way of relaxing, more recreation than revolution. Why then, I wonder, do I wrestle when they ask: Is it a picture? Does it have nice colors, do I like the shapes? Am I interested in the subject? Yes? Great, now what’s for dinner?

At the weekends I play rugby and then recover from playing rugby by watching rugby from the comfort of my couch usually with a strong IPA. And if there’s a party at dinner or some other social gathering I always enjoy them.

What’s your favorite aspect of the creative process?

Drawing, I think. With pencils and oil pastels. It is when I’m drawing that I feel most playful, responsive and connected.

Thanks, John! Discover his portfolio on Singulart.

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